In a new feature at GamecockCentral.com, we'll break down every aspect of South Carolina's last game and assign a grade. Go to the head of the class if the grades you assigned the Gamecocks match ours. You've heard the rest, now hear the best.
NO. 19 SOUTH CAROLINA 35, NO. 1 ALABAMA 21
So two weeks of being criticized and having his job again threatened turns into this? Might want to keep up the bellyaching this week. Stephen Garcia played easily the best game of his career, posting excellent numbers and even better leadership. He was 17-of-20 for 201 yards and three touchdowns, also collecting an interception when Alshon Jeffery let one bounce out of his hands and Alabama's Will Lowery made a diving stop on. What was most impressive was how Garcia led the team, never getting flustered or trying to hurry to the next play. He made his reads, stayed behind his blocking and didn't try to force anything when it wasn't there. The only reason it's not a top mark is the ill-timed safety -- while it didn't affect the outcome, it was a momentum-turning play at a really bad time. Outside of that, one of the most controlling games of his or any other USC quarterback's career.
Steve Spurrier said while previewing the game that nobody just runs three times up the gut against Alabama. No, but he didn't say anything about running over left guard or around the edge. Despite limited plays (57, for the second straight game), Spurrier mixed the run and the pass well and turned Marcus Lattimore loose for 93 yards and two touchdowns, plus another on a pass. Brian Maddox continued to show extremely impressive guile through limited touches, lowering his shoulders and blasting away at defenders who dared get in front of him. Much credit to the line for opening holes and much credit to the backs, who were never afraid of challenging the Tide's herd of prized beef across the front.
I keep mentioning it and I'll say it again -- where is the Heisman Trophy campaign and spotlight for Alshon Jeffery? Hopefully yet another stunning performance on national TV, with an ESPN interview before the game, will get him on that contenders list those guys love to promote. Jeffery did have the lost interception, but that's certainly excusable when he's pulling down one-handed catches while being held all the way down the sideline, spinning out of the tackle and galloping within the 5-yard-line. He's better right now than the Holy Grail triumvirate of Sidney-Kenny-Sterling, and is in such a perfect flow with Garcia that the two each know if the ball is thrown Jeffery's way, it's a completion. Garcia went to him early -- after loosening the defense up with dump-offs or tricks to Tori Gurley and Ace Sanders. A masterful job of forcing the offense to cover the other receivers, which turned Jeffery loose for another 127 yards and two TDs.
It's becoming repetitive, but that's fine -- don't expect much offensive production from USC's tight ends, because that's not what they're being asked to do right now. Justice Cunningham and Patrick DiMarco continue to block and block well, helping out the offensive line and doing an excellent job of finding some unsuspecting sap on a pass play, 10 yards downfield, and introducing him to the turf. The offensive line did a great job, and those two were part of it.
If Shawn Elliott could do a better job, I'd like to hear exactly how. I admit, I thought the line had been exposed for what it was against Auburn -- a group of tough kids playing well above their heads that just didn't have the talent to be an SEC line. That wasn't Elliott's fault -- a litany of long-ago recruiting mistakes was responsible -- but I figured that Alabama would really show just how far away the line was from being a contender. I'll shut up now. To have that kind of performance against Alabama, a team that was stacked across the front, was unbelievably magnificent. I thought the afternoon was summed up when Hutch Eckerson, seeing Darrington Sentimore jump offsides, shoved Sentimore back as if telling him, "You ain't touching my quarterback."
They knew they were going to have an awfully hard assignment -- stopping last year's Heisman Trophy winner and his "backup," who is good enough to win the Heisman on his own merits, yet never blinked. I believe that Alabama's game plan of throwing the ball early helped loosen up USC's defensive line, perhaps giving them a jolt of confidence such as, "Hey, they're not challenging us. Maybe they're afraid." Yes, Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson got some yards, but nothing like they've been getting. The line seemed content to bust Alabama up front but not rush Greg McElroy; he spent much of the afternoon being able to pick a spot to throw to, but had trouble finding open men. That cleared most of the receiving options out to rush McElroy on a delayed blitz; the result was seven sacks, 2.5 by defensive linemen (Melvin Ingram and Devin Taylor). And Travian Robertson? The man is a beast.
Really, the same as the D-line. With McElroy taking his time about throwing the ball, the linebackers stayed in their spaces to keep him contained. If he took off running, it seemed like McElroy would stop and wait to get hit, and USC delivered. Rodney Paulk got 1.5 sacks (and should have had another) and Josh Dickerson had seven tackles. An under-manned spot with Shaq Wilson out, but it surely didn't affect the team on Saturday.
The secondary may have thought it was getting an early Christmas present when McElroy came out passing, knowing that their bodies weren't going to have to try and bring down the bruising Ingram and Richardson, but then realized they still had to account for Julio Jones. He played a great game, catching eight balls for 118 yards and a touchdown, but other than that, USC did a great job of covering the receivers all the way downfield. As said before, McElroy had plenty of time to throw, but didn't have anywhere to throw it to. The hesitation to tuck the ball and run cost him, too -- USC's defensive backs would quickly pick up on it, out-run the linebackers and smack him to the turf. Stephon Gilmore had two sacks to go along with nine tackles, tying D.J. Swearinger, while Antonio Allen had a sack and forced a fumble. Two plays deny a top mark -- one, Jones' touchdown catch past C.C. Whitlock, which I'll give an asterisk to. Jones is 6-foot-4 and Whitlock's 5-10; Whitlock was there with him but got out-jumped. The other was DeVonte Holloman's busted coverage that allowed a sprinting touchdown, one of the only times all game McElroy threw downfield. Like Garcia's safety, though, all's well that ends well.
Who would have thought that USC's offense was so fluid that Spencer Lanning would only have to punt twice and not be called on for a field goal? Nine true possessions, five touchdowns. Lanning punted well on his two tries and knocked in his PATs, while Jay Wooten deserves a lot of credit for putting the ball in the end zone early and often. Yes, Richardson brought out the returns, but the kicks were so high that the coverage team had plenty of time to get down there. Joey Scribner-Howard and Lanning also chipped in on kickoffs to present a masterful game. Shane Beamer could relax on this one.
Spurrier's game plan was masterful, mixing the run and the pass and simply playing within his limits. It seemed, on Saturday, there were no limits. Spurrier didn't get frustrated or lose patience with Garcia after the safety; he sent him back out there and told him to answer for the mistake. He kept Nick Saban, a defensive whiz, guessing throughout the game and forced him into taking away the double-teams on Jeffery; USC's first touchdown drive didn't go to Jeffery at all and the second was mostly running plays, until that fade pattern that was so disastrous last year was gone up and grabbed by the lanky sophomore. Ellis Johnson dared McElroy to beat his boys with his arm and came out grinning after it did nothing but work. Every coach on staff deserved this one.
OVERALL GRADE: A
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